Protect Black Girlhood

by Niyankor Ajuaj

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My sixteenth birthday was during the summer of 2008. My best friend, whose birthday was a few weeks before, hosted a Sweet 16 birthday party. We wore matching spray-painted “Get Like Me” tank tops with jean skorts – do y’all remember skorts? – and orange Nikes. I remember at some point we walked to the corner store and were stopped by police. My stomach burning with anger as we were questioned and threatened to be detained. Then there was a different night, after leaving a house party, that my friends and I were stopped by cops. We were separated from each other, I was detained, and I spent what felt like an eternity in the back of a police car. This time, I was sickened with fear, quivering, tears pouring from my eyes because I did not know whether or not I would return home nor if my mother would know how to find me.

These memories came flooding back as I read the heartbreaking story of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant who was shot and killed by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio. The shooting, which occurred moments before a jury in Minneapolis convicted Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd, has been haunting me for weeks now.

There’s been so little information about Ma’Khia Bryant and her life. Over the span of two years, she cycled through Ohio foster homes, hoping to return to her family soon. Her sister, Ja’Niah Bryant, described her as a good girl who loved her family, dance battles, singing, applying makeup and styling her hair. She loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian.

No matter how hard folx try to convince us that Ma’Khia’s life does not matter – that she, a sister, a friend, a human being, deserved to get shot four times in the chest – MA’KHIA BRYANT’S LIFE MATTERS. She deserved to be seen and heard and loved and protected.

Too often we have a caveat when it comes to defending, protecting, and caring for Black Girls and Women. From 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones to 93-year-old Pearlie Golden, Black Girls and Black Women’s bodies and souls are brutalized with minimal consequences for those responsible.

According to the 2017 Georgetown Law study “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” Black Girls face “adultification bias” from as early as 5, which means adults perceive them to be less innocent and thus less worthy of nurturing, protection, and comfort. A 2019 study found that out of all women, Black Women face the highest risk of being killed by police. Black Women make up 20 percent (48 total) of the 247 women fatally shot by the police and 28 percent of unarmed killings since 2015, according to a 2020 Washington Post analysis

A recent New York Times article contends that the state of Ohio places children in foster care at a rate that is 10 percent higher than the national average, with child welfare officials less likely to place children with their relatives. Black children, like Ma’Khia Bryant, “account for nearly a third of children removed from homes — nearly twice their proportion in the population.”

This is the reality that Ma’Khia had to navigate. By the tender age of 16, she was already included in too many of these statistics. Despite attempting to fight her way out of oppressive systems and planning for a better future, Ma’Khia ultimately experienced the deadly consequences that too frequently results when living Black and femme and navigating misoynoir, unprotective, child protective systems in the U.S.A.

Protecting Black Girls is a sacred responsibility.

Black Girls deserve to live in a world where they can dream boldly and stand in the fullness of who the Divine created them to be. Black Girls deserve to love freely and be loved, to be protected from abuse and harm, and to be taken seriously when we ask for help. Black Girls deserve to explore, take risks, make mistakes and try – and try again. Black Girls deserve to live. Honor, respect and protect Black Girlhood.

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